Sometimes a child creates art that feels like it’s crying out for a container, sort of the way a child can be crying out for a hug. It can be very helpful to give a metaphorical hug to that child by framing their art. Framing lets children know they’re valued and accepted, in spite of whatever messy or bad feelings they might have inside.
In this work, some pieces remain contained, or hidden, and some have fallen out and lie exposed. This child and I worked together to place her work in the shadow box frame, so whether the exposure was intentional or not, it was her choice to leave the pieces the way they fell. Perhaps this exposure was a reflection of her safety in opening up, and perhaps the containment of the frame added to her safety. It’s hard to say, but In a non-verbal process with a younger child, thinking about metaphor is invaluable.
This kind of collaboration between child and art therapist is a powerful example of how a metaphorical art process can create trust and safety and strengthen the therapeutic relationship.
If you’re interested in reading more, two earlier blog posts address art therapy work with containers in general and frames in particular.
Another week, another school shooting, more dead. A lot of heartbreak and agony. Opinions, discussions, arguments, demonstrations. I thought I’d weigh in from one art therapist’s perspective.
People are traumatized by so many things. Most people associate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with war, child abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters. There’s plenty of that around. But people can experience trauma for many other reasons. Traumatic experiences usually involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves someone feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. Objectively there may not be any apparent reason for someone to feel traumatized, but it is the subjective emotional experience that counts. An illness, accident, loss, or humiliation can be the cause of trauma, for example. A sense of abandonment can be traumatic. As we have seen, bullying traumatizes many victims. Trauma is more common than we’d all like to admit.
Anger is a hallmark of PTSD, a response to feelings of powerlessness and the loss of a sense of safety. Alternating states of hyperarousal and numbing are common, intensifying chaotic and overwhelmed feelings. There is a pervasive sense that danger is all around. A fight-or-flight response, a physiological reaction to the threat, kicks in.
Back to volcanos:
An opening in the earth’s crust through which molten lava, ash, and gases erupt.
Something of explosively violent potential.
Volcanos are by far the most common image I have seen in the many years I have practiced art therapy. A volcano is kind of a perfect metaphor. So many of the traumatized clients I have seen struggle to contain a rage which is pushing to erupt. Most live in fear of their own rage, terrified of destroying those around them.
Some feel less aware of their own dormant volcanos, but their images convey that they may sense the impending shifting of tectonic plates that precedes an eruption.
You would not believe the size of my collection of volcano drawings, most of which I don’t have permission to show you here. These drawings can be seen as self-portraits, as the depiction of the subjective experience of their makers. Most of these artists had a healthy fear of their emotional volcanos. I always thought this child directed a huge wave at his volcano to put out the fire and make it safe for himself and those around him.
You help people by restoring safety, by helping them regain control, not by handing them the means to lose control and cause harm. People don’t want to cause harm. In my experience, they’re scared of their anger.
When someone is suicidal, we take away the sharps. With so much trauma in our midst, let’s make sure we take away the guns.
By far the three most repeated words in art therapy sessions with kids: I messed up! And fast, before I have time to intervene, into the trash can goes the messed up, crumpled up paper, often with just one or two little marks on it. Sometimes it’s very difficult to convince kids that making art is not about a perfect product, but about the process, and that their mess-ups are just steps in that process. That embracing the mess-ups is, in fact, metaphorically accepting all parts of oneself, ugly and beautiful.
But try telling that to a kid who has a picture in his head of how something is supposed to look. And who is so afraid of being a failure that exploration and play feel impossible. And who feels so bad inside that facing those feelings in the form of ugly art is painful.
So I always try to demonstrate that nothing’s really garbage.
Let’s make really ugly drawings! Keep going, make it worse. That’s not ugly enough.
Let’s rip out the parts of the picture we like and make a collage out of them.
Let’s try making sculptures out of the papers you threw in the trash can!
Presenting: four little paper sculptures from the trash can.
The recent stretch of extreme weather so many of us have been experiencing has me thinking about weather as metaphor. We commonly hear weather metaphors in music, and so it goes in art therapy as well.
Art therapists believe that all art communicates emotional experience, and inclement weather is a good stand in for bumps in life’s road. Rain in an artwork is sometimes seen an indicator of sadness or depression, because of the association to tears. Sometimes precipitation raining down on figures in a child’s drawing can be a red flag for some type of abuse.
Ultimately, though, the metaphor comes from the artist, and so must the interpretation. Although a clinician may sense that the drawing is an indicator of depression, abuse, or other difficulty, it is only through further dialogue that the meaning of the metaphor becomes more clear. If a child is unable to verbalize about the picture, an art therapist’s job is to encourage the client to explore the metaphor through further artwork.
And of course we have our own emotional reactions when we view an artwork such as the following. Our reactions are useful information, but can be misleading if we are projecting feelings onto the artwork which are unrelated to the artist’s.
Putting one piece of work into the context of a larger body of work can help the client and the therapist work together to understand the full story. In this case, rain was a running theme that appeared in many drawings.
Sisters in the Rain
Sisters in the Rain 2
Context, context, context. This drawing by a ten year-old New Yorker is titled Drowning House. If it had been done on or after October 22, 2012, we could venture a guess that it had to do with Hurricane Sandy, which was a big topic for some kids in my art therapy room at that time. But this drawing was made years before Sandy came raging in. This child was not able to verbalize about her picture. One direction might be, “Can you draw a picture of what was going on before the rain storm came in? How did the house start to drown?”
A few more weather pictures, all different in composition and color intensity but all powerful. A fiery sun/eye, a shattered world, a sad rain.